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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle

A Year in Provence was a delightful, fun, quick read. I didn't laugh out loud, I almost never do when I'm reading anything, but I had a smile stuck perpetually on my lips as I read. Mr. Mayle had a happy knack for bringing out the humor in every situation he described, a knack for gently and affectionately poking fun at the foibles of his neighbors and friends, and even at himself. He divided the book into twelve chapters, one for each month, and began with January.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it. For the first time ever I wish to visit France, in part to see the countryside, but mostly to sample the cuisine. There are a handful of references to lewd behavior and one instance of a crude word, but the book is 'clean' other than that. Actually, there's an oft-repeated French word which seems to be a bit of a curse word, but ignorant I did not understand its meaning (meaning to say, if you understand that one word, possibly the book will seem less 'clean' to you). I'll be searching out Mr. Mayle's other works with alacrity.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A 'What's on My Nightstand?' Post

Another list, but of another sort:

1. I have been dipping into Large Family Logistics, by Kim Brenneman. I disagree with some of the biblical justification she offers for what she recommends, and with a certain few of her specific recommendations, but on the whole the book has proven to be helpful to me. I do not intend to read it straight through from cover to cover, but I have already implemented a few of her suggestions and been benefitted by them. I would recommend the book to mothers, regardless of the size of their families.

2. I have begun, and have not even completed the first chapter yet, Far As the Curse Is Found, by Michael D. Williams. I love this book! I would highly recommend it to every Christian reader. It is Biblical Theology, like Vos's, but more accessible to the lay reader. This first part of the book has excited me about our Savior God. If the rest of the book is even half as good it will be fabulous.

3. I have undertaken to work my way through The Well-Educated Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer, with  my niece. It will take me several years, of course, to work my way all the way through it and the lists of books it contains, but I believe it will be of value to me. I would recommend this book to anyone not currently in school who would like to enhance their education.

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

In The Language of Flowers, Victoria relates her story: she was an orphan, abandoned by her mother at birth. She's bounced from foster home to foster home, institutional setting to institutional setting, sometimes abused, never loved, except once. What happened to prevent her from being adopted by the woman who did love her? Well, that is a part of the story which I would not want to spoil for a reader interested in reading the book. More importantly, what will happen to Victoria after her emancipation from the foster care system? Will she learn how to love others?

Victoria is a scrappy character. As the book begins she's equal parts pitiable and spiteful.  She does grow up over the course of the book. In fact, that's kind of the point of the book, her growing up, becoming fully human.

The story is told in first-person narration from Victoria's point of view. The chapters alternate between her early days after emancipation, and her younger life. This was a good way to advance the story line, pieces of the earlier story illuminating pieces of the later story, but every so often something about her voice jarred a bit. Most of the time the later story felt recent, immediate, but then would come a sentence or two which would sum up those days of Victoria's life, and for those couple sentences it felt like the whole story was being told by a much older woman. This only happened a few times, but it really stood out to me when it did.

It is a realistic story, not at all fanciful or fantastical, but there is heavy symbolism and thematic elements (lots and lots of eating, for instance).

I did like the book, I did care for Victoria and want to know what would happen to her, but I did not love the book, I did not lose myself in it. I would cautiously recommend this book to readers of modern fiction. There are some sex scenes (argh!), but they're not horribly salacious.

A List of Recent Reading

A list of the books which I've recently read which do not merit individual posts (not in chronological order):

1. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, by Kitty Burns Florey. This was a quick and fun read about, as the subtitle proclaims, the history and art of diagramming sentences. I enjoyed reading it, though I did disagree with some of the author's conclusions (she lets us know that she enjoyed diagramming as a student, but questions the value of teaching students to diagram; I disagree with her as to the value of diagramming). I would recommend it to readers who enjoy reading about grammar.

2. Maman's Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen, by Donia Bijan. Ms. Bijan was born and spent her childhood in Iran. The summer she was 15 she and her family were vacationing in Majorca, when the Shah was deposed. Her family knew they would be targeted by the new ruling radicals, so they fled to the U.S. Ms. Bijan went on to study at the Cordon Bleu. She presided over several acclaimed San Francisco restaurants, and then opened her own. Maman's Homesick Pie is part memoir, part cookbook, elegantly and poetically written. I believe it will appeal to many different sorts of readers, those interested in food (Ms. Bijan waxes rhapsodic about food), those interested in tales of family love (she also waxes rhapsodic about her mother's love for their family), those interested in true tales of immigrants, those interested in other cultures (Ms. Bijan's memory of the Iran of her childhood is clear and vivid). It was a very pleasant read. I would highly recommend it, to most readers.

3. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell. This book was interesting, but not as interesting or compelling as Outliers, also by Malcolm Gladwell, or other books about how people think, such as Brain Rules, by John Medina, or Distracted, by Maggie Jackson. If you're interested in reading something by Mr. Gladwell, I'd recommend you start with Outliers. If you're interested in reading about how the human brain functions, I'd recommend John Medina or Maggie Jackson, or Oliver Sacks, or even The Survivors Club, by Ben Sherwood. Blink was okay, but not really noteworthy.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua details what Chinese parenting is all about for the enlightenment of Western parents. Not only does Ms. Chua describe Chinese parenting, she explicitly proclaims its superiority to Western parenting.

This book was a bit controversial when it first came out in 2011. People would share something Ms. Chua wrote about how she mothered her two daughters and exclaim over it. "She actually called her daughter a piece of garbage! Can you believe that?" "She handed a handmade birthday card back to her young daughter and told her it was unacceptable, that she had to make a new and better card. How shameful!"

Those, and some other specific examples, did make me cringe, and hurt inside for her daughters. I cannot fully embrace what Ms. Chua describes as Chinese parenting, nor do I think it's Biblical.

Having said that, however, I would go on to say that I think some of the criticisms of Western parenting which she makes are spot on. I agree with her that too much praise for pitiably weak or half-hearted efforts will not help the child succeed. I agree with her that learning a skill, and practicing it, which necessarily must involve a lot of time and labor, will give the child confidence with a sure foundation.

I agree with her that Chinese parenting will almost certainly be more successful at raising world-renowned concert pianists and violinists than Western parenting. I disagree with her that raising world-renowned concert pianists and violinists is the best goal for all parents. I agree that there is tremendous value in knowing a demanding instrument well. I disagree that it is the most valuable pursuit a parent can require of a child.

While I read Battle Hymn, I was reminded of what I've read elsewhere about the Chinese approach to learning and life. In The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds, Eric Enno Tamm quotes a professor at a Chinese University as saying that if you want to hear the next world-class musician performing classical music, come to China, but if you want to find the next world-class composer, look elsewhere. In The Little Red Guard, the author, Wenguang Huang, says that he was taught to memorize and parrot back everything his teacher said; when he spent a semester studying at a university in Britain, he flunked his classes because his teachers there didn't want him only memorizing lectures.

I also wonder how Chinese parenting deals with those who are truly unable to excel, no matter how many hours of practice they put in. Ms. Chua does mention her younger sister, born with Down Syndrome. Her parents took a Western parenting approach with that daughter, keeping her with them instead of institutionalizing her.

As a Christian parent, my fondest hope is to see my children walking with the Lord. Worldly success can be sweet and pleasant, but it comes at a price, and it is not ultimate. It behooves me to help equip my children to do their duty skillfully and cheerfully, to the best of their ability and to the glory of the Lord. My one overarching aim in parenting is, or at least ought to be, God's glory, and I trust and hope that he has bound up his glory in redeeming my children, and that overarching aim must inform and give direction to all my lesser aims.

I finished Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother with the firm conviction that it must be very unpleasant to be Amy Chua's child. And to what end? To be better than everyone else? That seems empty, futile, and arrogant to me.

I would recommend this book to readers interested in other cultures, in parenting, and in how parenting is practiced in different cultures.